Motherhood in War, Bodily Experience
Like many of my compatriots, the full-scale Russian invasion of my country came as a shock, despite warnings from foreign intelligence services and much talk about the likelihood of such a scenario. Nevertheless, I have to confess a scary (first of all, for myself) truth: this reality of war, full of anxiety and, from time to time, despair, was another layer on top of the state of anxiety and despair that I was already experiencing as a new mother.
The war caught me in a relatively fresh position as a mother—on February 24th my daughter was a little less than four months old. Now, at the time of publication, she is already eleven months old. A state that already existed—one of constant stress, uncertainty and partial loss of control over my own life—only intensified with fleeing home and experiencing a threat to my life and that of my baby. The body serves as a resonator of these experiences, as well as a basis for an (in)ability to find tranquility. Pregnancy and motherhood had changed my body drastically and dramatically, and the war made further adjustments to the experience of such a changed body.
The first scientific works on the psychological states of babies began to be published at the end of the 19th century. In these and subsequent works, the mother is usually mentioned as one of the objects that has a stable character and a set of certain indicators (care, control, love, protection, etc.). Only in the last third of the 20th century did the mother come to be considered as not just some “other”, in relation to whom the baby undergoes the evolution of a relationship, but as a subject—a subject with feelings and experiences. Susan Rubin Suleiman in Writing and Motherhood quotes Adrienne Rich: “Most of the literature of infant care and psychology has assumed that the process toward individuation is essentially the child’s drama, played out against and with a parent or parents who are, for better or worse, givens. Nothing could have prepared me for the realization that I was a mother, one of those givens, when I knew I was still in a state of uncreation myself”.
Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray have both attempted to deconstruct motherhood. The former analyzed the Western Christian tradition of depicting the Virgin Mary with the baby and the narratives embedded in it, built around the position of the mother. The latter combined the methods of psychoanalysis and phenomenology in order to rethink corporeality as purely female, based on the peculiarity of the experience of the female body, its “formlessness”, “fluidity”, particularly in a state of pregnancy.
Writing about my experience of motherhood, most of which falls during a period of martial law in Ukraine, I draw on my bodily experience, which is most revealed in the phenomenological tradition. It is important for me to talk about the experience of the lived body, because only in this way can I claim a certain universality, while at the same time relying on my own insights (just mine, detached from my husband’s and other family members’ experiences). Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a key scholar of body phenomenology, writes: “My body is the fabric into which all objects are woven, and it is, at least in relation to the perceived world, the general instrument of my ‘comprehension'”.
As Elizabeth Grozs notes in Volatile Bodies. Towards a Corporeal Feminism, Merleau-Ponty’s concept served as a foundation (as well as a point of criticism) for feminist theory. The French phenomenologist made an attempt to break the classical philosophical duality of body and soul, understanding the body both as an object (for others) and as a lived reality (for the subject), and he understood time and space as perceived through our bodily situation. His concept of lived body and flesh “has a point-to-point congruence with the attributes of both femininity and maternity”.
Iris Marion Young was the one who applied the phenomenological method of Merleau-Ponty to the prism of analyzing the female bodily experience, based on the obvious fact that the experience of living in a biologically female body has its own fundamentally different features (the experience of breasts, menstruation and climax, pregnancy, etc.). She not only takes the position of a feminist critique of phenomenology for its phallocentricity, but also offers a theoretical description of the position of women. In her well-known essay “Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment, Motility, and Spatiality”, Young emphasizes that femininity is not an essential characteristic, instead it is “…a set of structures and conditions that delimit the typical situation of being a woman in a particular society, as well as the typical way in which this situation is lived by the women themselves”. At the center of this situation is the woman’s body itself, which is “the first locus of intentionality, as pure presence to the world and openness upon its possibilities”, that is, a lived body.
But at the same time, the lived body faces the world of limitations and threats specific to the female experience—”the threat of invasion of her body space”. These threats form the background for girls and women to live their bodies—the background of objectification, which is most acutely manifested in the threat of rape (what to say about such a threat in wartime?). This experience in its totality and sequence affects the bodily dynamics inherent to most women—more restrained than those experienced by men. That is why we live in a world where the expression ‘like a girl’ still has a pejorative connotation.
Anxiety: sleep, food, smile
I consider myself an anxious person: my heart starts pounding for the slightest reason, I sweat if I feel insecure in front of an audience, the work of my intestines depends heavily on the level of cortisol in my blood. Since early childhood, I experienced every important event in my life very emotionally, feeling unready. During pregnancy, I had a lot of worries: from the first ultrasound to all the things I postponed to the last month, dreaming I’d finish them before the birth of the baby (of course, I didn’t manage to). However, I have never felt such a deep anxiety as that which only comes with motherhood—the feeling of being completely bewildered by a sudden, irreversible change in my life. This feeling was strongly imprinted on my body. The body, which was intensively, yet gradually transforming during the 38 weeks of pregnancy, underwent drastic changes during childbirth. It was simultaneously eviscerated (the uterus is deprived of both the child and the placenta, an organ that the body specifically grows and then rejects), traumatized (through the artificial intensification of the birth process as incisions are made and sutured alongside natural tears), and actively involved (immediately after childbirth my breasts were used to feed the baby, and with each feeding the uterus began to actively contract).
My daughter did not want to sleep separately from me, and the whole first night with her I tried to find a position in which she could calm down. In the end, she fell asleep lying on her stomach on top of me and I was afraid to move all night so as not to wake her up. It was the beginning of a new everydayness; I had to find ways to coexist with the baby, necessarily involving my body. The contact of our skins—hugging, holding, rocking, feeding, lying down—became a necessary condition of this coexistence. This turned out to be an unforeseen difficulty. Iris Young describes the experience of pregnancy: “…the boundaries of my body are themselves in flux. In pregnancy I literally do not have a firm sense of where my body ends and the world begins”. It turned out that after the birth separation, the feeling of the boundary between my body and someone else’s is not restored, it is blurred even more. I had never thought about it before and could not imagine such an everyday life; in a tight connection with another body, which almost constantly needs my body, depends on it (its smell, its warmth, the rhythm of its heartbeat).
It took me the first two months to recover and come to terms with the fact that my body was not entirely my own anymore. I could not accept it and actively resisted. I cried most of the time, terrified of everything that appeared in my mind and in front of my eyes. I was triggered by people with children on the street (I didn’t understand how they could go through this and calmly walk around and smile), by cafes and shops (I couldn’t know if I would ever be able to calmly enter these doors, most of which were inaccessible to a person with a baby carriage). The whole world became hostile to me, it radiated terror in front of an unclear future in which I would not be able to find a place for myself and my child. And no one could help me but myself, through gradual adaptation.
About two months later, the first pattern and repeatability that I could predict and influence happened—my daughter started falling asleep at around the same time each evening. Around this time, the period of recovery after childbirth also passed (the uterus healed). Also, my daughter started smiling at me and my husband, which was a crucial emotional reward. Motherhood cannot be selfless, a mother needs satisfaction from the child; the feeling of tender skin, the hugs of a small body, a smile in return, every new skill.
It’s as if my body hasn’t been fully mine since the first day of motherhood. It’s like I got it back after letting someone else wear it, in a condition that didn’t match the original. During pregnancy, my center of gravity shifted, and after its termination, this shift remained. I couldn’t straighten my shoulders, my back was tight and wouldn’t relax. My hands and fingers, which were now constantly holding the baby, throbbed, overstrained. When the baby fell asleep and I put her in the crib, I lay next to her afraid to move, afraid to wake her up with the slightest movement, even with a breath. I was lying on my side and felt my body stiff. I didn’t know where to put my hands, I didn’t remember how I used to lie relaxed and sleep. Trying to take up as little space as possible with my body, I put my arms tightly to my body and they became numb. I could not fall asleep because I listened to the baby’s every sound and movement. Each made my heart pound, pierced me through and caused wild fear, as if I were hiding from a maniac. I fled from my baby daughter to the other room, from where I listened to her cry. Eventually, I could go to bed but only with a mask over my eyes and with earplugs, through which I could still hear the baby, but at least I was able to fall asleep for a while.
At night, the baby often woke up. I didn’t sleep for more than two hours in a row. When I put her down for a nap, I never knew how long she would sleep: ten minutes or two hours. If I almost did not sleep in the first months—so high was my cortisol level—later it was the opposite; I was constantly sleepy. Whenever my daughter fell asleep, I would go to another room, hoping to nap for at least an hour (but an hour was never enough). I lay down on the couch and curled up in the fetal position (I wanted to be a baby being rocked), my dog usually snuggled next to me. Despite the constant fear that my daughter was about to wake up, and the inability to relax my body, I managed to fall asleep.
On the night of February 24th, it was our dog who first heard the sounds of Russia’s full-scale invasion. He is usually very afraid of thunder and fireworks, and now he climbed into our bed again. He was shaking with fear, which woke me up. I so deeply did not want to believe in the explosions that I told myself that the dog was frightened by the thunder. And fell asleep again. An hour later, my daughter woke up and I started to feed her, and someone called my husband and told him the news. We got our things together within an hour and fled, from Kyiv to Transcarpathia where my parents-in-law were waiting for us. They had been asking us to go to their place even before February 24, but I had refused. I could not believe or accept the possibility that the delicate lace of the world we shared with this baby, which I had carefully and painstakingly woven for several months, would be torn. But that’s what happened.
As we fled from Kyiv, I could feel the fear growing. At first, the body gets relieved in a trivial way, then it refuses food, but constantly needs water. The frantic unfolding of events, news about the rapid attack from different fronts, shelling and explosions—everything made me feel like a runaway, just a scared runaway. The fear of rape that accompanies being in a woman’s body becomes sharp and real. And now, as a mother, I found it projected onto my daughter’s body.
We had to spend the night in a hotel in the center of Lviv (the only free room we could find that evening). My husband did not want to stay in the city, because of the threat of bombing, but we had no other option. At night the four of us snuggled into a small hotel bed, the child between my husband and I and the dog at our feet. Tiredness and anxiety permeated me, behind was a nightmarish day of escape and shock. Ahead was the continuation of the journey. And the disturbing possibility of an attack on Lviv. For a moment I thought: what a beautiful picture—we are together in a tight and warm place. But this closeness of our bodies was forced and violent, an uneasy gathering. We were woken early in the morning by an air alarm—the first in my life. The sound of a siren breaking into a private space penetrates through and forces the interruption of ordinary actions (sleeping, brushing teeth, feeding a child…), the cancellation of any sequence of actions, and the transition to rescue and escape mode.
Already in a new place, sleep became a fixation: I constantly thought only about the opportunity to sleep and harbored a grudge against everyone around me for the denial of this opportunity. When, at last, I was able to stay alone and rest, I did not calm down for a long time, even though all I wanted was to fall asleep and escape from reality.
After some time, air alarms began in Transcarpathia as well. One sounded as soon as I, after a long effort, had put the baby to sleep one night. I had to take her out of her crib again and hold her while sitting in the hallway with my survival go bag on my back. I felt my complete powerlessness, powerlessness due to the inability to plan something, to count on something. I imagined how the windows would break, small pieces of glass piercing my daughter’s body if I didn’t have time to cover it with my own. I wondered if my body was even able to shield her from all the debris.
Unlike sleep, food was not a problem. On the contrary, the child ate often and for a long time, gaining weight well. After February 24 my appetite disappeared, but not for long. After a few days, I wanted to eat again. Food became not only a source of pleasure, but also was accompanied by a feeling of security. Often I could not stop eating because I understood that as soon as I left the table I would feel bad again. I concentrated on the thought: if I eat a lot, I will have milk for the baby. That’s how I justified my gluttony. In addition, I developed the habit of eating greedily and quickly emptying the plate, because I was afraid that the baby would start fussing at any moment and I would not have enough time to enjoy my food.
When sleep failed me, food remained a stable support. But there was a third method of alleviating anxiety, which was also provided by the body—smiling. I had to smile at my daughter, no matter what. In the first days I did it even while crying, because I wanted to cry all the time. Smiling through tears is a special facial experience. My face became a complex dramatic grimace, I felt its unnaturalness and makeup. She answered it with perplexity. But even a strained smile corrected my condition, pulled me out of the well of suffering. It is impossible to smile widely at a baby and not raise your eyebrows, smoothing out the interbrow fold. A smile for a baby is hypertrophied, you need to show your teeth, or at least stretch your lips wide. This exercise with the face forced me to enter into an emotional connection with our daughter and distract myself from other emotions.
Home and everyday rituals
As I mentioned above, the child’s restless sleep provoked not only sleep deprivation, but also deprivation of pleasure, even the simplest and most inconspicuous pleasure—that of everydayness, from routine. On the other hand, the deprivation of the simplest daily rituals, or rather their calm, unhurried conduct, revealed their high value. During the first months with the baby I had to learn to build these rituals with a new person in my life who needs lots and lots of attention from me. She has the right to interrupt my breakfast, shower, nail trimming, bathing… I had to learn to either do everything very quickly, or do it all in her presence. The first option turned out to be unsuccessful, because it constantly kept me under stress—I could not be sure whether I would have time to even finish a cup of tea. This was depressing. In the evening, when the child fell asleep for a couple of hours, I seemed to have time for my work, but I found myself at a loss—I didn’t know where to start, I was simply at a loss. After three months of her life, my daughter was able to watch me calmly for 15 minutes. This time was enough for me to take a shower and wash my hair, eat a precooked meal or mop the floor. Little by little, I began to build a common routine with my daughter, we acquired our shared rituals; she sat in the swing and listened to music while I washed, she sat on a chair and looked at a toy while I ate, she studied my actions, and I was able to do them calmly. I was the star performer, while she looked on attentively.
But as soon as I began to establish our stable, understandable coexistence, the full-scale war began. We ran away from home, from our space of newfound repetitiveness. We had to build it in a new place, look for replacements for the swing, the chair and other things that gave me the luxury of a calm motherhood routine. My body responded to this challenge; getting up from the new bed with a slightly pressed mattress with the child in my arms put a strain on my knees, and they began to hurt with every squat and stand up. Every night turned into an accumulation of my fears; anxiety because of the terrible news from Kyiv region, at every bedtime the fear that the child would not fall asleep, the fear that the dog sneaking around or any other sound would wake her up.
Rebuilding our routine seemed impossible, because I did not know what would happen to us in the next month, week, day, or hour. Will a siren break the lull? Will a rocket stop breakfast? Will I have to adjust to life in another country, among strangers whose language I do not know… Another fear has been added—in front of an unexplored space and the threat of building a new everyday space abroad, what if Transcarpathia will also not be safe enough for the baby?
Contemplating about the concept of home, Iris Young defines its four normative values: Safety, Individuation (“A person without a home is quite literally deprived of individual existence”), Privacy (“…autonomy and control a person has to allow or not allow access to her person …”), Preservation (“Home is the site of the construction and reconstruction of one’s self”). At home before the war, I partially lost the last three values to motherhood, but I always had the first one. War takes away a sense of security, without which all other values lose their sense. But despite these characteristics, a new, relatively safe place does not become a new home while the old one still remains. Abandoned space provides an opportunity to return and find a primary sense of security, which is no longer possible in reality.
I don’t equate motherhood with breastfeeding, but in my case, the breasts have become more or less the bodily center of my motherhood. Immediately after birth, my daughter found my breast and latched onto the nipple in the only way a person can cling to life. I understood that she hardly sees or hears, that she found herself quite suddenly and with difficulty in a new world where it is uncomfortable, cold and, probably, very scary. Breasts, warm, soft, and most importantly, from which she gets a tasty, nutritious liquid, are her support in this world.
My breasts have always been taboo for me. As a child, when they just started to grow, another girl publicly shamed me for my “bumps”, a shame which stuck with me. I refused bras, hunched over while my female classmates padded themselves with cotton wool and put on push-up bras. Already as an adult, I did not like my breasts, I considered them too big, too low, I never wanted to emphasize them. Now I understand that all this time I ignored the subjective position regarding this part of my body: it was more important to me how my breasts looked in the eyes of others than how I felt about them. Iris Young writes about this: “An epistemology spoken from a feminine subjectivity might privilege touch rather than sight. Unlike the gazer, the one who touches cannot be at a distance from what she knows in touch”. As an object of shame and special attention, my breasts were an extremely sensitive area for me, and after giving birth its boundary was violated.
The midwife squeezed my nipple hard and a drop of colostrum came out, which the newborn daughter was supposed to smell. It was done without warning, after a long painful process of labor and stitches, at the moment when I had just decided that the pain was finally over. I told the midwife that it was unpleasant, to which she told me that I should not let my daughter down in the important matter of establishing feeding. I felt like an intern at a training course where connoisseurs in the form of doctors and lactologists taught me how to manage with my own breasts to suckle right. I learned to do it, at least that’s what tracking the baby’s monthly weight gain showed. But every nursing was unpleasant for me, it was an invasion of my most private. At first, my whole body resisted this; during lactation, I stretched my legs and curled my toes, gathering all my patience. Then I realized that my teeth were clenched and forced myself to relax my jaws. I kept looking at my daughter in my arms, lowering my neck. I was waiting for her to be full, but nursing was not only feeding, it also soothed her. She could hang onto my breast for an hour or more, sometimes falling asleep, then opening her eyes. My breasts no longer belonged to me, they had lost their intimacy. I had to constantly take them out of the underwear, wipe them, wash them, lubricate them. It was a milk-producing machine—I could feel my breasts filling and emptying. My breasts were instrumentalized.
After February 24th, however, when so many women panicked because of the lack of formula milk in stores and pharmacies because of the need to move as quickly as possible with only short stops for feeding, I felt the value of this tool. My breasts were a source of life for my baby, and the most convenient one. All I needed on the way was to stop, put the baby down, and there she was—full and satisfied. I no longer cared about my privacy.
A week after our escape from Kyiv, my milk supply decreased. I did not feel the milk in my breasts, and I became afraid for my baby’s life. I turned to nursing her often, trying to suppress my feelings, because the decrease was the result of stress. Breasts full of milk guaranteed at least some confidence in the continuation of life. What had annoyed me so much now soothed me, even though my teeth were still clenched with each nursing. But that’s how I got on the path to accepting my breasts. They were changed, such that they lost their previous shape, but they had also gained a new efficiency.
“The border between motherhood and sexuality is lived out in the way women experience their breasts and in the cultural marking of breasts. To be understood as sexual, the feeding function of the breasts must be suppressed, and when the breasts are nursing they are desexualized,” Young writes. Following Yulia Kristeva, she emphasizes the importance of women accepting their breasts not through looking at them (taking on a male position), but through experiencing their dynamics, fluidity, and touching them. And motherhood brings this touch to the maximum number of positions. It would seem that this happens due to the minimization of their eroticism, because the nursing mother acquires the status of sanctity that society puts at odds with the erotic role of a woman. According to Young, however, breastfeeding carries with it a source of perhaps even greater pleasure for the mother—the pleasure of bodily connection with the baby, the feeling of comfort and relief when the full breasts are emptied and infused with life. During the war, this experience manifested itself for me, because when death is very close, the feeling of being filled with the source of life had a truly therapeutic effect.
Body: changes and stability
Gradually, I began to understand that my breasts are the most comfortable thing for feeding my daughter. My body, which has changed a lot, has gained efficiency in motherhood. After giving birth, I realized that I had gained a thick layer of belly fat during pregnancy. Along with the hunched back and bent neck, the bulging belly became comfortable for carrying the baby. Holding my daughter, I felt that she was attached to me like a piece of a puzzle. I could hold her for a long period of time. As she became more active, she began to practice different movements on my body: leaning on her arms and legs, crawling, rolling over. She slid on me, I grabbed her with one hand, then with the other, supported her with my knee, stomach, clamped her with my chin. My body became a training ground, a home, a support.
Gradually changing, acquiring new skills and opportunities, starting to crawl, sit down, eat at the table, respond to subtle emotions and clap her hands, my daughter reminded me of the flow of time. Since the end of February I stopped feeling the change of weeks and months—I followed the calendar, but time seemed to freeze in my mind. And it was the baby, her physical development and dynamics, that became a measure of time for me. Little babies of neighbors who came from different cities of Ukraine were also actively developing before my eyes; some started walking, some were born and were already three months old. For an adult three months can fly by unnoticed, but for a newborn, these first months are their whole life!
Finally, I would like to mention the role of art in my motherhood. After giving birth, I forgot about art: I didn’t want to be interested in it, I didn’t want to think about it, I stopped writing. I felt alienated from the world of Ukrainian art, which was so crucial to me before.
After the full-scale invasion, Ukrainian artists and illustrators began to work very actively with the topic of motherhood. After the news from Bucha and other towns of Kyiv region and Ukraine—specifically the news about raped and murdered women and children—I began to turn to artworks on the motherhood. It became easier for me, as if the Aristotelian catharsis was triggered; the emotions of compassion and fear were purified in me, and I continued to experience motherhood in my body. Kateryna Lisovenko’s watercolor with a dead raped mother lying next to a murdered baby. It was about me, only in an alternate reality—in my reality my baby and I were still safe and alive. Aliona Naumenko, who fled to Poland with her daughter, drew her female colleagues with their children. Hugs, the feeling of warmth, the tenderness of my baby’s skin, a kiss on the cheek, inhaling the smell of her hair—it was as if I had switched places with my daughter. Once she was so dependent on the warmth of my body, and now I needed the warmth of hers. In Naumenko’s drawings, I saw a reflection of this experience. An illustration by Olesia Sekeresh, in which a mother butterfly holds a dead baby-bug, is signed by the author with the words “pain and love met each other.” Motherhood is a continuous meeting of pain and love: for me, the first preceded the second, and then a new wave came, most likely not the last one. My body serves as a reservoir of pain and a conduit for love, and I am grateful to it for that.
Maggie Andrews, studying mothering practices during the evacuation from the bombing of London in World War II, wrote: “Biological, foster and social mothering were overlaid with a complex web of expectations. Individual women’s lives were constrained by tiny gossamer threads, which restrained their being: duty, doing the right thing, guilt, supporting the war effort, patriotism, empathy and sympathy for others, forces and causes which seemed so much bigger than women were themselves”. During the past six months, millions of Ukrainian mothers have faced incredibly difficult challenges, losses, separations and obligations that are much heavier than my own, the severity of which I cannot even imagine. Remembering that, I just tried to reduce my experience purely to what I was before and during the war, to the very situation in which I and my body found myself.
This text was featured in the exhibition Out Loud / Вголос / Na głos at Galeria Labirynt in Lublin, PL.
Published 10 October 2022
Yevheniia Butsykina is Ukrainian art critic, cultural manager, associate professor at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv. She did her PhD in philosophy (“Transgressive Experience Concept by Georges Bataille: Aesthetical Analysis”), and has since published and taught, with a particular interest in design and cultural studies, environmental and everyday aesthetics, philosophy of laughter, G. Bataille’s aesthetic ideas. Member of the Society for Aesthetics in Slovakia (SPES). Her texts have been published in Everydayness. Contemporary aesthetic approaches (University of Prešov, Roma Tre-Press, 2021), in Art Ukraine, Korydor, VONO, Artslooker journals (Ukraine). Contributor and co-editor of the book MUHI 2009-2021 (Osnovy Publishing, 2022).
- Rich, A. (1977) “Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution.” New York: Bantam. Cited from: Rubin Suleiman, S. (2011). Writing and Motherhood. The (M)other Tongue. Essays in Feminist Psychoanalytic Interprétation. p. 356.
- Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962) The Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Colin Smith. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. p. 235.
- Grosz, E. (2020) Volatile bodies: Toward a corporeal feminism. Routledge. pp. 88-90.
- Ibid., p. 103.
- Young, I. M. (2005) “Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment, Motility, and Spatiality” in Iris Marion Young. On female body experience:” Throwing like a girl” and other essays. Oxford University Press. p. 29.
- Ibid., p. 35
- Ibid., p. 45.
- Young, I. M. (2005) “Pregnant Embodiment: Subjectivity and Alienation” in Iris Marion Young. On female body experience:” Throwing like a girl” and other essays. Oxford University Press. p. 50.
- Young, I. M. (2005) “House and Home: Feminist Variations on a Theme” in Iris Marion Young. On female body experience:” Throwing like a girl” and other essays. Oxford University Press. pp. 151-153.
- Young, I. M. (2005) “Breasted Experience: The Look and the Feeling” in Iris Marion Young. On female body experience:” Throwing like a girl” and other essays. Oxford University Press. p. 81.
- Ibid., p. 88.
- Andrews, M. (2019) Women and Evacuation in the Second World War: Femininity, Domesticity and Motherhood. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 2.